On November 19, 2016 a new generation of NOAA's geostationary operational environmental satellites (GOES) blasted into orbit from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. I was on Cape Canaveral, just a few miles from Launch Complex 41, to witness the graceful ascension of the first in a series of four satellites that will allow us to monitor three times more weather information with four times the resolution and five times faster. That kind of quantum leap forward is the result of 40 years of technological development (the current fleet of GOES satellites largely use 1970s technology), and new types of instrumentation.
The satellite known as GOES-16 (it was called GOES-R until reaching orbit and coming online in December 2016) is currently undergoing a long period of intense testing and calibration to insure the data it beams back is accurate. This is done through a choreographed series of earth-based, airborne, and satellite measurements, which are all compared for accuracy.
The mission of this so-called "Field Campaign" is to ensure that GOES-16's two main instruments – the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) and Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) – are "seeing" things clearly from an orbit 22,500 miles above the earth. To do this a NASA ER-2 airplane takes measurements from high above several locations, while GOES-R takes identical observations over the same area at the same time. The data were compared against each other, as well as reference data sets obtained from ground and other satellites, until scientists were convinced of GOES-16's accuracy.
Phase one of the Field Campaign was deemed complete on April 11, 2017 when the satellite's primary instrument, the ABI, was deemed on the mark. Phase two of the Field Campaign is underway through May 18, 2017, and is testing one of the most exciting new instruments on-board GOES-16: the Geostationary Lightning Mapper.
The National Lightning Detection Network – developed and run by my alma mater UAlbany –has provided near real-time cloud-to-ground lightning strike data across the continental U.S. for over 30 years. When the GOES-16 GLM becomes operational, however, it will provide a real-time view of all lightning activity over the Americas and adjacent ocean regions for the first time ever. The frequency, location, and extent of lightning can help meteorologists identify which tropical cyclones and thunderstorms are intensifying, and can even help identify tornadic thunderstorms several minutes before radar can detect them. Data from the GLM will also be archived to track long-term changes in lightning activity (important due to lightning’s role in maintaining the Earth-atmosphere electrical balance).
Below is an example of what the GLM saw on April 27-28, 2017, as a powerful spring cyclone spawned widespread severe weather across the Great Plains and Midwest. This preliminary, non-operational data from Lockheed Martin is one small example of the wealth of information that GOES-16 will deliver, free of charge, to all of us 24/7/365 beginning later this year.